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The Novel Choice of Setting: TV Newsroom

November 04, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | NEWSDAY

Many familiar figures in TV news have recalled in books how they got those stories and the big interviews. Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Dan Rather, Sam Donaldson, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Fred Graham, Larry King, Andy Rooney and Peter Arnett are among the broadcasters who have written their memoirs. Lesley Stahl will add "Reporting Live" (Simon & Schuster) to the collection in January.

But only lately has the high-stakes game of network news--full of ego, bruising competition and sometimes even a sense of purpose--received sustained attention from novelists.

That's because the novelists have come from the business itself.

Robert MacNeil, the retired co-anchor of what used to be "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" on PBS (now "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer"), wrote his own memoir, "The Right Place at the Right Time," in 1982. Now, in "Breaking News" (Doubleday), his topical third novel, he goes inside the head of a distinguished anchorman as he tries to slow a powerful tide that threatens to bring cheap sensationalism to his nightly broadcast and attractive but shallow talent to his network's news ranks.

Mary Jane Clark, a producer at CBS News in New York, has set "Do You Want to Know a Secret?"--a suspenseful tale of murder, ambition and national politics--amid the workings of another big TV news organization.

The two books have arrived six months after the publication of "Those Who Trespass" (Bancroft), in which Bill O'Reilly, of the Fox News Channel, lays out his own tale of murder and TV news. Earlier literary ventures into this territory include Jon Katz's "Sign Off" (1991) and Steve Friedman and Rosemary Ford's "Station Break" (1993).

"I had wanted for a long time to write a novel that was sympathetic to an anchor," MacNeil said. "There have been so many brilliant satires in film, such as 'Network' and 'Broadcast News.' I wanted to get inside the psyche of this guy and then my agent [Bill Adler] said to me, 'You know, this generation of network anchors is reaching their 60s, if they're not there already, and there's going to be a changing of the guard before too long.' That suggestion ignited my other desire to say something about where the business is going."

Grant Munro, the 60-year-old anchorman at the heart of "Breaking News," begins the novel bemoaning the news media's crazed pursuit of the Monica Lewinsky story. In a speech to colleagues, Munro compares the media to the Gadarene swine: "You remember, Christ sent evil spirits into a herd of pigs, and the maddened herd raced over a cliff and drowned. I think that . . . in our new and insane competitiveness, in our rising desperation for ratings . . . in our rush to report unsubstantiated rumor, leaks and gossip;, an evil spirit entered, and we became that herd of maddened swine racing toward our own destruction."

MacNeil made clear that Munro's words are his. "I've had lots to say on this subject," he added. "I've bored people to death at symposiums and seminars and other places through the years. But this [novel] is not a tract. I've tried to deal with the people and their relationships and all the pressures that weigh on the anchor."

In "Do You Want to Know a Secret?"--a first novel published by St. Martin's Press--Mary Jane Clark cuts from short scene to short scene with the speed of a network newscast. "I wanted it to be television-like," she said.

Her book also is centered on an anchor--Eliza Blake, a widowed young mother who co-hosts the morning news at KEY-TV. When the network's beloved evening anchorman is found dead in his home, the grieved Blake has to take over some of his assignments, a development that irks the late anchor's wickedly ambitious successor. Indeed, how the network staff responds to the death, on and off the air, and how it affects a presidential campaign, make this intersection of network news and politics much more than a whodunnit.

Clark is the former daughter-in-law of Mary Higgins Clark, but the super-successful queen of mystery writers did not know that "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" was being written. The younger Clark did not take up fiction until after her divorce in the early '90s.

"They always say, 'Write what you know.' After 20 years in TV news, I didn't need to do much research," Mary Jane Clark said.

The 18,500-copy first printing is large for a first novel. St. Martin's also is backing the release with an author tour.

Still to come in this small but burgeoning genre are a second novel set in the TV news business from Clark ("Do You Promise Not to Tell?") and a second thriller from O'Reilly ("Deliver Us From Evil"), who plans to mine the world of TV talk shows and syndication.

Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is paul.colford@newsday.com. His column is published Wednesdays.

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Feast Your Eyes on This

For more reviews and book information, read Sunday's Book Review. This week:

* Richard Eder tackles Tom Wolfe's new novel, "A Man in Full."

* Eric Zencey digs into three recent books on nature.

* And Carolyn T. Hughes goes the distance with David Remnick's biography of Muhammad Ali.

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